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Plans to develop Penn’s South Bank campus are currently underway, but it is envisioned to be a bustling hub for commercial enterprises and University research.

Credit: Courtesy of Facilities and Real Estate

Penn is moving forward with plans to transform its 23-acre South Bank property — formerly known as the DuPont Marshall Labs — into a buzzing entrepreneurial campus that will house new commercial and research facilities tied to the University.

This redevelopment was most recently discussed on May 16, when the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation released its Lower Schuylkill Master plan that aims to renovate nearly 68 percent of the city’s underutilized and vacant industrial land.

As described in the Master Plan, Penn’s vision for South Bank aligns with Philadelphia Industrial Development Cooperation’s outline of an “Innovation District” at the northern end of the Schuylkill River — “a place where startup firms [spun off of university research] can land,” Paul Sehnert, Penn’s director of real estate development, said.

Along with the proposed “Innovation District,” the master plan includes an “energy corridor” for energy production and transport and a “logistics hub” that will become a center for distribution, warehousing and manufacturing.

The project — estimated to cost $411 million to complete — is in very early stages of development, but development plans for Penn’s South Bank campus offers a glimpse of what’s to come.

Local Development

Although Penn’s South Bank site — nestled on the southern bank of the Schuylkill River between the University Avenue Bridge and the Gray’s Ferry Avenue Bridge — is very close to the core of campus, most students don’t travel there often.

Penn purchased the land from the DuPont Company for $13 million in October 2010, a year after DuPont vacated the site. While the area is now mostly a jumble of vacated offices and industrial buildings, it is nevertheless an integral element of Penn’s more general Penn Connects 2.0 plan, offering the potential for extensive redevelopment and innovation.

In the short term, the South Bank Campus “can perform a number of useful functions,” Sehnert said.

The land allows Penn to move certain facilities off of the core campus, leaving more wiggle room for continued academic growth.

“We were out looking for space to relocate transportation and parking,” Ed Datz, executive director of real estate at Penn, added. “It was a pretty nice alignment on their timing in conjunction to our needs.”

In addition to these upcoming agendas, Penn hopes to cultivate a strong relationship between South Bank and the main campus centered on increased research and technology transfer.

Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli explained in an email that “redevelopment could foster facilities that support research and innovation practices in developing products and services based on that research.”

Filling the space

With a vision for the land firmly in place, the search has begun for tenants to fill the space at South Bank.

There is growing interest in the campus’ varied facilities — from labs to office spaces — especially from startup companies that will benefit from the site’s cheap cost and close ties to the University’s research.

Many prospective companies are seeking South Bank land through Penn’s Center for Technology Transfer, which helps license Penn technology to commercial businesses.

“We have a number of those kinds of tenants, which are in the pipeline to consider this space,” Sehnert said. “These are innovative companies that are integrating Penn’s tech transfer with the available real estate.”

Sehnert added that the South Bank campus presents opportunities for startup companies to evolve. “These companies will go over there because they need space immediately and need some room to grow,” he said.

Penn’s UPstart program — which creates companies based on the research of Penn faculty — is working closely with Sehnert and Penn Facilities and Real Estate services to improve the land for these kinds of businesses.

“We look at South Bank as an opportunity for Penn to make an investment into all of these companies by giving them more affordable space to begin operations,” Mike Poisel, program director of UPstart, said.

Graphene Frontiers is one startup founded through UPstart that is benefiting greatly from the opportunities at South Bank.

The proximity to Penn provided Graphene Frontiers with the “necessary tools and technology” to help get the business off of the ground, CEO of Graphene Frontiers and 2012 Wharton graduate Mike Patterson said.

Along with having access to advanced Penn equipment, Patterson noted the important role that Penn students have played in his company’s development, as the company has “had many interns from Penn.”

He believes that as more companies like Graphene Frontiers invest in South Bank, the site can offer unique opportunities for students — from internships to full-time jobs. Datz agreed that the development of the land will be beneficial for students.

“When you look at innovation, it’s opportunistic,” Datz said. “Depending on how students interface with that, they may well be the researchers or the fellows that support some of these future efforts.”

“This is nascent territory with a lot of potential,” Patterson said. “We can already see the beginnings of a virtuous cycle where a couple of startups move in, and the more people that are there, the more attractive the land becomes to other companies and service providers.”

Building for the Future

Poisel noted that while several other firms are currently considering leases at South Bank, Penn will need to invest a lot more in order to provide “the basic resources that a scientific company needs to be functional.”

“[Sehnert] is doing everything he can with limited resources, but the University needs to put more behind this if we are really going to make it work,” he added.

In order to spur continued growth, Penn has taken steps to make South Bank’s campus more appealing to future tenants. This March, Penn hired the design firm Wallace, Roberts & Todd to develop a plan to improve South Bank amenities.

Developments in the next few years will include increased incubator and laboratory space while improving pathways and pedestrian accessibility in order to foster stronger ties with the surrounding city.

“In longer term we have lots of bigger visions for the campus,” Poisel said. These include creating a hub for social and collaborative interaction and “having resources for a campus that’s not just for research companies but is open to the arts.”

“This parcel is very much a part of Penn’s vision for the future,” Sehnert said.

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